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Addressing food crisis in Africa: What can sub-saharan Africa learn from Asian experiences in addressing its food crisis?

Göran Djurfeldt, Hans Homén, Magnus Jirström and Rolf Larsson

Lund and Linköping University, Department for Natural Resources and the Environment

January 2006

SARPN acknowledges SIDA as a source of this document.
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Executive summary

Much writing on Africa presents a gloomy picture of the region’s current situation and future prospects. The inability of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)to feed its growing population in particular, and tales of ‘soft states’ and corrupt governments, unwilling or incapable to deal with the situation, belong to the standard narrative about SSA.

This has not always been so. On independence most of SSA was selfsufficient in food. In less than 40 years, SSA has gone from being a netexporter of basic food staples to relying on imports and food aid. During the same period output per capita in Asia has increased due to successful implementation of Green Revolutions and this once food-deficient region is now characterized by food-surpluses and even exports.

This booklet looks at the African food crisis against the background of the Asian experience. Our starting point is the fact that 30 to 40 years ago the Asian food situation was depicted in the same alarmist terms as is that of SSA today. Also, the concept of ‘soft states’ – lacking the social discipline to carry out policies – was originally reserved for Asian governments. The question we asked ourselves was: ‘What are the prospects for a Green Revolution in Africa?’

Today the Green Revolution no longer seems to be comme il faut. It is commonly depicted as a narrow technological package (seed, fertilizer and irrigation), concentrating on wheat and rice. It is widely criticized for having negative social and ecological consequences and, in any case, due to different agro-ecological preconditions (e.g. limited irrigation potential), it is often deemed unsuitable for Africa. We found this critique to be largely exaggerated and beside the point. From a technological perspective, the green revolution has expanded and now includes crops (e.g. maize, sorghum, beans, cassava, bananas), which are important in SSA. As for its social consequences, the critique has often been based on assumptions and/or observations from the early days of the Asian Green Revolution. Most initial adversities have been overcome since then and there are reasons to be optimistic about the Green Revolution’s poverty reducing potential.

Green Revolution goes far beyond technology. Based on the Asian experience, we interpret the Green Revolution as a state-driven, marketmediated and small-farmer based strategy to increase national self-sufficiency in food grains. In order to understand why so many Asian governments assumed a leading role in developing the food chain, we point to the crucial geopolitical dimensions surrounding the Asian Green Revolutions.

Our investigation is based on an historical and comparative study of agricultural development in seven Asian countries and on secondary sources and interviews with key informants. For the African part of the study we have undertaken case studies in eight countries in SSA: macro studies based on secondary data and interviews with key individuals and, to complement this, village surveys and questionnaires involving more than 3,000 smallholders in 103 villages. In order to reflect the dynamism, we chose regions that are above average in terms of ecological and market (infrastructure) endowments but excluding the most extreme cases in this regard. Nevertheless, our areas of investigation can be said to be typical of the kind of environment in which a majority of SSA smallholders reside, yet sufficiently diverse to yield information about crucial conditions responsible for farmer performance.

Although the overall pattern of agricultural change is complex and varied, it is still possible to identify a sufficient set of common features to outline a particular development path for agriculture in Asia. Beginning in Japan during the Meiji-period (1868–1912) and subsequently followed in other countries in the 1960s and 1970s, Asian governments came to realize that agriculture and, especially, food production, had to be stimulated rather than squeezed if these countries were to maintain independence. Also, growth in agriculture was seen as the only realistic way to finance industrialization and modernization. Asian governments set out to stimulate food production by way of credit provision, subsidies and introducing remunerative price policies, investing in irrigation and transport infrastructure, and investing in research and extension services in order to develop and disseminate high-yield seed varieties (HYVs).

These governments assumed a leading role in agricultural development, with the result that administratively-regulated markets became the norm. However, markets were not nationalized nor were private traders eliminated. Often, Green Revolutions were initiated in high potential areas where returns on investments were high. This enabled further investment and expansion to other regions at later stages. For this reason – but also due to migration and interregional factor market adjustments – initial regional inequalities did not increase as much as the early critics had predicted.

Almost simultaneously, though apparently without any connection between them, governments in India, Indonesia and the Philippines made U-turns in agricultural policies with the introduction of Green Revolution policies in the 1960s. Generally, these and other similar steps represented a break not only with previous policies (which aimed at keeping food prices low for the urban population) but also with the prevailing orthodoxy in development thinking. How can we explain the recurrence of such dramatic policy shifts?

In several countries, population growth, limited availability of farmland and widespread poverty resulted in food-riots and social unrest. The fact that the regimes’ survival was threatened by domestic opposition partly explains the policy shifts. In order to remain in power, existing governments (e.g. in Japan and India) changed policies to promote domestic food production and to improve the situation for the small farmers who generally became the back-bone of the new agricultural programs. In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos was elected president in 1966 on a platform aiming to encourage domestic rice production. In other cases (e.g. in Indonesia) military coups enabled the new leaders to break with previous policies and aim for the same goal. In some cases (e.g. in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) land reforms benefiting smallholders were implemented. As a result governments commonly gained widespread support from the poor majority of the population.

External geopolitical factors were equally important. After Independence in 1947, India was unable to feed its population without importing wheat from Pakistan – which had been part of India before Partition. After the outbreak of hostilities over the control of Kashmir, the Indian food security situation worsened and it became increasingly important to opt for national food self sufficiency. Geopolitical conditions were crucial in South Korea and Taiwan. Under threat of invasion from North Korea and China respectively, the South Korean and Taiwanese political elites gained a wide autonomy permitting them to implement reforms that under other circumstances might have been successfully resisted by vested interests.

This was the time of the ‘cold war’ and the US government feared that ‘overpopulation’, poverty and food insecurity would fuel communist revolutions in Asia. From an earlier stress on food exports, nicely tailored to domestic concerns with overproduction of wheat (e.g. the PL 480 program), the US moved to stress export of technology rather than export of surplus grain. Both directly and indirectly (e.g. through the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations) the US government invested heavily in developing and disseminating new high-yielding crop varieties in order to enhance food availability. These technologies were freely available to Asian governments, a circumstance that contributed significantly to their high adoption rates.

Moreover, the world market price for cereals was high and imports expensive. This not only dramatically enhanced the importance of policies aiming at national self-sufficiency in food crop production, it also made it economically sound to pursue subsidies and price policies. Hence, a number of domestic and external (geopolitical) factors working simultaneously contributed to the policy U-turns undertaken and to the determination with which governments in Asia carried out their new green revolution policies.

It is frequently claimed that the currently dismal food security situation in Africa is due to the fact that ‘the Green Revolution never reached Africa’. Partly, this is believed to be so because Green Revolution technologies have not been suitable for SSA, partly because African governments have neglected agriculture. However, the problem with African food production is neither technology (i.e. wrong crops) nor nature (i.e. poor soils and erratic rainfall). Nor yet is the problem that African governments have been reluctant to engage with the agricultural sector. On the contrary, there have been repeated attempts at state-led intensification. Nevertheless, during the last decades attempts to implement Green Revolutions in SSA have seen short-lived spurts of production rather than lasting improvements in productivity. Instead of asking ‘Why have Green Revolutions been absent in Africa?’, we need to ask ‘Why have Green Revolutions not been sustained in Africa?’

One part of the answer is that few suitable crop varieties were available until the 1980s. But the main reasons are policy related. In order to grasp agrarian policies in SSA we need to take a closer look at the situations in which African policies have been pursued.

At the time when Asian Green Revolutions were initiated, the situation is Africa was quite different. Africa is often said to be under-populated and its often low population densities make infrastructure investments costlier and slower to realize than in, for example, Asia’s more densely populated major Green Revolution regions. Until the mid-1970s in some cases until the 1980s – most countries studied were considered self-sufficient in food crop production and there seemed to be no great need to pay special attention to the food sector. With no permanent food problem and with virgin lands still available, the pressure to change established ways of production (and accompanying social institutions, etc.) was much lower than in Asia. To a large degree, African governments’ priorities differed from those of their Asian counterparts.

The situation changed dramatically in the 1970s due to a series of internal and external shocks. Population growth and droughts increasingly strained food security. Most governments’ budgets were affected negatively when oil prices quadrupled in 1973. A major drop in the price of copper in 1974 hit Zambia adversely. In various ways SSA governments committed themselves to developing food-crop agriculture and, hence, assumed a leading role in agricultural development. Public investment in the agricultural sector was generally high. As in Asia, the state provided credit and assumed responsibility for supplying inputs and handling produce through state-led cooperatives and marketing boards. Crop research programs were initiated and new high-yielding maize varieties were released.

In contrast to most Asian cases, private trader involvement was constrained or eliminated.

This enabled governments to:

  • regulate prices;
  • offer minimum price guarantees;
  • offer pan-territorial pricing; and
  • provide inputs such as seed and fertilizer at subsidized prices to a largely subsistence-oriented smallholder peasantry, which suddenly had access to external resources as well as ‘markets’.
Nonetheless, in contrast to the Asian Green Revolution, farm-gate prices were suppressed and yield improvements were generally modest. Fixed prices squeezed the margin between cost of production and revenue from sale of produce for both smallholders and (public) traders, thereby reducing the incentive to produce a marketable surplus.

With governments’ priorities increasingly emphasizing low (urban) consumer prices rather than improved (rural) producer prices, the result was maintaining the status quo rather than agricultural development. Surplus production under these circumstances was not always attractive and, where conditions deteriorated too far, smallholders were reported to have withdrawn into subsistence production. With parastatal organizations and marketing boards operating at a loss whilst subsidy costs mushroomed, this policy became economically unsustainable. Also, the whole endeavor turned out to be bad business for governments and the costs of upholding the system skyrocketed at the same time as governments’ revenues deteriorated. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s Structural Adjustment Policies (SAP), aimed at reducing the role of the state and enhancing that of the private sector, were imposed upon most SSA governments. It was presumed that this would spur agricultural intensification and more general development.

But the results have not matched expectations. On the whole, farms in SSA remain small, both when measured totally and per crop. Fields are mainly worked by family members with women performing the bulk of farm labor using simple hand tools. Both average production and yields of the major food staples (maize, rice, sorghum and cassava) are low although there are variations both regionally and within the same village. A small number of farmers (the top performing five percent) obtain yields substantially higher (double or triple) than the majority of farmers. These yield-gaps show that vast potential for agricultural growth exists in contemporary SSA – a potential that is insufficiently tapped.

Notwithstanding regional variations and recycling of hybrids, adoption rates for high-yield seed varieties are high, notably in the case of maize. In fact, adoption rates in SSA appear to be higher today than was the situation in South Asia in the 1970s. This suggests that technology is not as constraining as may be generally assumed. Conversely, after SAP most smallholders can no longer afford to purchase fertilizer. So the use of chemical fertilizer is extremely low: in the case of maize, more than half the farmers in the sample did not apply any chemical fertilizer during the 2002 season. For those who could afford fertilizer the average application rate was only 14 kilos per hectare. The amounts applied were even smaller for other crops. Potential yields of hybrid seeds cannot be realized without fertilizer.

Consequently, only about ten percent of the households surveyed produce a marketable surplus of food, whereas more than half the households interviewed fail to produce enough food to cover their consumption needs and are therefore net buyers of basic food items. Households may secure their food and income to buy food from sources other than staple crop production, e.g. sale of cash crops or working off-farm for cash. Such income is generally small and does not suffice to alter the persistent poverty and food insecurity situation affecting the majority of farm households interviewed.

A number of economic, political and institutional factors at regional, national and international levels hold back the performance of African smallholders. Under present conditions, only a small number of wealthy households have access to the resources and the financial security that make it possible to improve yields, raise production and market anything but a marginal surplus. The performance of these farmers and the gap between them and the majority clearly shows that the African food crisis is policy related.

It is a commonplace to ‘explain’ Africa’s lack of development by stating that African political leaders have been (and perhaps still are) crooks and kleptocrats, who do not care about development and whose only ambition is to enrich themselves by appropriating public resources. Yet this is not a satisfactory (and definitely not a sufficient) explanation. After all, corruption and malpractice were also common in Asia. But that did not prevent the Green Revolution being implemented there.

African governments do not control their national territories to the same extent that Asian governments do – and did. The various African programs for agricultural development released in the 1970s had a double function. They were aimed partly at development and partly at nation building, i.e. the consolidation of state power. By providing agricultural inputs (and at the same time eliminating alternative suppliers) and by guaranteeing ‘fair treatment’ in the form of pan-seasonal and pan-territorial pricing for inputs and produce, a then-young African state could show its good intentions and, possibly, gain widespread legitimacy. The approach was often more benign than in Asia as indicated, for example, by the frequently accepted low loan-repayment ratios and cancellation of agricultural debts.

At the same time, the servants of the enlarged state apparatus became a substitute for the social base that the African State did not (yet) have. The state often turned a blind eye to malpractices and inefficiencies. Parallel to this, in order to reach out and extend the ‘controlled’ territory, local bosses, clan leaders and village headmen were co-opted into the clientelistic networks of the state, viz. indirect rule continued. The thenyoung governments had to buy their way into the countryside. Whereas in Asia governments expanded their room for maneuver by ‘disciplining’ factional interests, in SSA governments much less successfully tried to gain strength by allying with them. Hence, there were few efforts to transform prevailing structures.

While supposedly credit and inputs were distributed evenly and fairly among the peasantry, experience tells a different story. More often than not scarce resources were distributed to the politically well-connected, which often meant to large farmers, to loyalists and to the regimes’ cronies, who often had nothing to do with farming. The result was a dual structure comprising, on the one hand a small group of ‘modern’ often well-connected and sometimes absent, commercial farmers and estate owners and, on the other hand, a vast majority of low-productivity, semisubsistence oriented smallholders growing traditional varieties using only small amounts of fertilizers and improved seeds. In other words, agricultural modernization policies in SSA have not been smallholder based and, hence, have had no revolutionary impact.

Invariably, SAP was meant to result in a complete turnaround of the economy away from state-led development to a market economy. Government was to become the enabler rather than the manager. Implementing SAP, in many cases, meant a renewed priority for agriculture. However, in most cases, emphasis was not on staple food production but on export crops. Nevertheless, farmers initially responded favorably to the policy changes and production increases were sometimes substantial. Since deregulation came gradually, and since elimination of subsidies often followed other reforms with some delay, much of the initial positive impact of SAP appears to be related to the combination of deregulated markets and temporarily retained subsidization.

In the longer run, and almost without exception, it appears that SAP was no panacea for food self-sufficiency in SSA. Whereas large commercial farmers have found opportunities to diversify, smallholders remain ‘stuck with maize’ and have been progressively marginalized from, rather than integrated into, the liberalized market. Markets remain undeveloped, most smallholders can no longer afford chemical fertilizers and yields remain low, much below their potential. This has disrupted reform programs and played havoc with the legitimacy of governments meant to implement them. To varying degrees a growing number of African governments have turned away from market-based policies and are trying steadily to bring the state back in. We found several indications that governments in SSA today are moving towards taking on a role in agricultural development comparable to the one played by Asian governments carrying through the Green Revolution in the 1970s.

It can also be argued that the circumstances surrounding such a policy U-turn are more favorable today than they have been hitherto. Technologically, the Green Revolution is now much more Africa-friendly than was the case only two decades ago. The fact that development aid has declined since the end of the cold war, means that governments must make renewed efforts to develop their countries’ internal resources. Population growth and increased food insecurity means there is pressure from below calling for implementation of more smallholder-friendly policies, especially in the food-crop sector. Currently SSA is less ‘underpopulated’ than it used to be. In large parts of SSA, the land frontier has been reached or is about to be reached. This means that the time is ripe for intensification rather than extensification. In many ways the present situation resembles that of Asia when Green Revolutions were launched there.

However, there are also a number of circumstances which seem to reduce opportunities for an African Green Revolution. Due to World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations, the scope for African governments to protect their agricultural sectors are much more restricted than they were in Asia in the 1960s and the 1970s. Governments’ ability to engage in agricultural development is reduced because aid to agriculture has declined even more than development aid in general. Crop research results are no longer considered public goods today but are disseminated (by US and EU-based Trans national corporations) on a commercial basis, dramatically increasing the costs of an African Green Revolution. Moreover, world market prices for cereals are presently at the lowest level ever recorded. This makes it economically less rational for financiallysqueezed governments in SSA to pursue costly subsidization policies. However, world-market prices for cereals are artificially low due to subsidized overproduction in the US and the EU which tend to dump their ‘surpluses’ in poor countries. This further reduces the prospects for SSA attaining food security by independently.

We end on a positive note because, although the food situation in SSA is bleak and growing worse, our analysis shows that it is indeed possible, by means of policy measures on the part of African governments and the international community, to reverse the downhill slide. However, as the analysis implies, this requires policy interventions at several levels, including international trade regimes. This is a challenge to, among others, the Swedish government. Their stress on policy coherence gives grounds to work not only with aid, but also with trade and agriculture policies to further the goals of global sustainable development.

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